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Absentee ballots need a fair shake

NYC Board of Election staffers count primary election

NYC Board of Election staffers count primary election absentee ballots in the city in July 2021. Hundreds of thousands of Long Islanders chose the mail-in option in 2020 and 2021. Credit: AP/Mary Altaffer

An unfortunate outcome of last week’s election was the failure of a proposal that would have removed the requirement that voters need one of a few acceptable excuses to mail in an absentee ballot.

It would have been one of two sensible voting changes, along with removing an early deadline to register, that could have started making it easier to vote in New York.

The absentee issue is long overdue for an update. We have a reliable system in place that verifies and counts ballots for people who can’t get to their polling place on Election Day, and the system has been in use for years by homebound people, military members serving overseas or outside of their home county, and those who know they’ll be temporarily out of town. During the COVID-19 pandemic — which scrambled big primary and general elections in 2020 and 2021 — voters were allowed to mail in absentees. Hundreds of thousands of Long Islanders took advantage of this option, but that expanded ability due to the virus does not extend to next year and beyond.

Barring future emergency adaptations, that likely means crucial primaries and elections for governor, attorney general, comptroller and the State Legislature will not include an easy absentee option for most people in 2022. Those Long Islanders who appreciated the convenience and simplicity of voting by mail face a frustrating backslide. Those who do request and receive an absentee anyway by untruthfully marking one of the exemptions would technically be filing a false instrument, a class E felony.

There is federal legislation pending that could expand voters’ ability to mail in absentees, but it’s unlikely such changes would apply to all races on the ballot.

The most obvious path forward is to try once again to change the state constitution and permit mail-in ballots even for those not absent from their county of residence, sick or disabled. A multistep, yearslong road awaits. The measure will have to be passed by two separately elected sessions of the legislature and then put on the ballot for voters once again, no sooner than 2023. Then, supporters must do a better job of pitching this common-sense reform.

Among the exaggerated claims that helped kill this ballot proposal was the idea that more absentee voting would lead to fraud. Numerous studies nationwide have found this to be an extremely limited concern. Colorado and Oregon are just two of the states that conduct some or even all of their elections by mail. Isolated bad actors and lawbreakers will always exist, and reasonable safeguards can be discussed, but in New York, we already have bipartisan opening of ballots and signature verification.

While the memory of the convenient absentee ballot option is still fresh, the legislature should push forward on the amendment process once again. Next time’s the charm.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.